The military is not what anyone would call a social movement. Limits are rigidly guarded, and for good reason. A group of soldiers who decide on their own targets or flanking maneuvers would lead to mayhem.
In business, however, limits are there to be pushed, to be surpassed, and to be left behind. Returning veterans would seem to be ready for this challenge. The skills are clearly there. So is the maturity. But maybe the biggest hurdle keeping veterans from becoming entrepreneurs is the huge step from taking orders to being self-motivated in every decision, and most of all, finding the support from the community to take that step.
Enter Saurav Pathak, the Rick and Jo Berquist assistant professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at the School of Business and Economics. He knows making the transition from student to professional can be rough, but for veterans, moving from soldier to student to professional can be much more jarring.
“I don’t have the data set to completely verify this, but from talking to veterans in Detroit, I found that senior military people may be less averse to risk,” Pathak observes. “Junior officers are so used to taking orders, which could hinder them when they need to take the lead in business decisions. More research will demonstrate if this is true.”
With PhDs in mechanical engineering and entrepreneurship, Pathak understands how to combine technical skills with a business mindset.
Veterans, he says, “certainly show leadership and are achievers and risktakers. These qualities are key to becoming an entrepreneur.” When asked what sets veterans apart, Pathak was unequivocal. “Their personality. To me they are better fitted to the role of entrepreneurs given their training and experience. We believe that the research will show that veterans are more likely to thrive as entrepreneurs.”
By entrepreneurship, he’s referring to either a new business started by a veteran or getting involved in an existing business, through franchising, contracting, or consulting. “The literal meaning of starting an entrepreneurial firm — spotting an opportunity, then applying an innovative idea to create a business — is seldom the case for veterans’ entrepreneurship,” he says.
Pathak’s focus is on what hinders veterans from beginning or succeeding as entrepreneurs. Success can be difficult to measure but would most likely mean the progression from incubation of an idea to the launch of a business to the cusp of profitability. He has just finished refining a survey that will soon go out to veterans. First he built a network of cooperation with the ROTC program at Michigan Tech, the Veterans Affairs/Michigan Works of ce in Houghton, and the Whitman School of Business at Syracuse University.
With support from the Research Excellence Fund at Michigan Tech, Pathak’s survey will help to determine what level of preparation and support veterans have received so far. Veterans who are currently self-employed will be asked a different set of questions than active duty military personnel. “The responses will allow us to discern the entrepreneurial behaviors of veterans pre- and post-military career.”
“In Michigan alone, there are some 700,000 veterans,” he says. “And on campus there are about 90 veteran students and another 90 faculty and staff. If we can harness just a small percentage of them in a University veterans center for entrepreneurship, we can help them succeed and propel Michigan Tech and the community into prominence at the same time.” This community of entrepreneurs would be “a sustainable network of self-employed veterans connected through social media or physically or both, who meet to share their experiences and train other aspiring veteran entrepreneurs.”
The goal is to build sustainable community, one that will foster mentorship and provide a welcoming setting for new veterans seeking to explore the possibilities of entrepreneurship.
Pathak pauses, considering his work and the steps we still need to take to help veterans become entrepreneurs.
“Veteran entrepreneurship in the United States has to be a social movement.”
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.